Shelter sheds light on the past

7th July 2006 at 01:00
"We have a school air-raid shelter, can we look at it, Miss?" I can't remember who said it, but as I teach A-level archaeology and provide as much hands-on experience as possible, I investigated the possibility of a visit.

From that came two years (so far) of triumph, which included a grant and help through the Sheffield Wildlife Trust. The shelter has also generated excitement among staff and students, as well as disappointments and tantrums (mainly mine).

Something about this underground structure fascinates people. It represents the past in the present - you can touch it and explore it. Students are drawn in, recording and researching, piecing together remnants of the nocturnal lives of its inhabitants.

It is more than the corrugated iron room everyone expects. Built in 1938 (there's planning for you) as an air-raid shelter for the school and surrounding area, it was also a command and control centre for the bomb disposal squads.

It consists of two-metre wide, three-metre high concrete tunnels, half the width and the full length of the football pitch. It is wonderfully engineered, dry and structurally sound, and was built with precision by Sheffield workers.

The shelter was sealed in the 1970s and lay waiting to connect with a new generation and have its stories told - of refugees who worked as bomb disposal operatives; of the fear of chemical warfare, which resulted in the many shower cubicles.

We will soon open the shelter to students and people from Sheffield and beyond, and we will tell them about a city that made things which lasted for generations. Like other old buildings around the country, it acts as a catalyst for teaching and learning. We hope that visiting students will come away with a real sense of what everyday life was like as the Second World War began.

As one student said: "Awesome, Miss." I couldn't have put it better myself.

Caroline Hamilton

Archaeologist and A-level archaeology teacher, King Edward VII School, Sheffield

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